Elfrid Payton’s massive summer made possible by a Chris Paul camp snub

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Elfrid Payton had a really, really good sophomore season, one that saw him average 15.9 points, 5.6 boards, 5.5 assists and 2.4 steals while playing more than 35 minutes a night.

Those are massive numbers, regardless of what level of basketball you play.

The problem, however, was that Payton played for Louisiana, a team that finished last season buried in eighth place in the Sun Belt with a forgettable 13-20 record. Payton was a first team all-Sun Belt selection and the guy that every coach game-planned around if they had UL on their schedule, but his notoriety didn’t make it much further than a scouting report for Arkansas State or South Alabama.

Such is life at the mid-major level, which is precisely why his head coach, Bob Marlin, spent all spring trying to get Payton into Chris Paul’s point guard camp. An invitation-only event stocked with some of the best high school and collegiate point guards from across the country, it would be the perfect place for a 6-foot-3 combo-guard to A) learn from some of the best skills instructors, including CP3 himself, and B) get some exposure, to be more than just a name known in Florida Atlantic’s locker room.

“We fought it pretty hard for about a month,” Marlin told NBCSports.com, but eventually, word came back that Payton would not be getting that invitation. “It was disappointing.”

And it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to him.

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Elfrid Payton is an opportunist.

Give him an inch, and he’s taking a yard. Let him get a foot in the door, and he’s busting through like Adrian Peterson catching a glimpse of the goal line.

As a 16 year old high school senior, Payton was 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds, stuck playing second fiddle on a good John Ehret (LA) HS team that featured the more highly-regarded O.C. Tart. Payton was a Division I prospect, but he was the guy whose high school coach had to make calls on his behalf. That changed midway through the season, as Payton was given the reins to the team when Tart got himself suspended.

With a chance to show what he was capable of, Payton led Ehret to Louisiana’s state tournament semifinals, which just so happened to be played at UL’s Cajundome. At that point, Marlin had been recruiting Payton for about a month, Tulsa and New Mexico State were poking around, and Texas A&M had inquired about Payton attending prep school. A couple of weeks later, after visiting Payton at his high school, Marlin hosted Payton and his family on campus for an unofficial visit. Payton committed that day. “We just thought UL was the right place,” he told NBCSports.com. “It was close to home, my parents could come see my games, it was the right fit, and I could come in immediately and play, which was the biggest thing.”

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After a promising freshman season, Payton exploded as a sophomore, bolstered by a late growth spurt and an extra 20 pounds of muscle. It wasn’t enough to earn an invite to the Chris Paul camp, but Payton caught another break.

Sports Reach is a ministry that travels the world using athletics as a platform to share the Gospel. Based in Louisville, KY, it would only make sense that one of their main efforts involved basketball, and they’ve had some pretty prominent alumni. Jordy Hulls traveled with them in the summer of 2011. Peyton Siva, Victor Oladipo and Aaron White were on the team in 2012. This summer, Sports Reach had a point guard drop out of their two week trip to China, and when Marlin got word, he and Payton decided that it was probably his best chance at making a name for himself.

It wasn’t.

Unless you knew someone on that trip, you didn’t know about that trip.

But it forced Payton to get a passport, and that may have changed the course of his basketball career.

While Payton was on the trip, Marlin had a realization: Payton’s young for his age, as he turned 19 years old this February. That would make him eligible for the USA’s U-19 team, which is typically made up of high school seniors and college freshmen. Payton was due home in a couple of days, and the U-19 trials were due to start in about two weeks, but Marlin figured it was worth a shot to give the U-19 head coach, his old friend Billy Donovan, a call to make a pitch for Payton to get an invite to training camp.

“I know the trials have been set and it’s the last minute and I apologize, but I’ve got a young man that I think can help the team and bring some more experience to the group,” Marlin told Donovan. He referenced the 20 points and seven steals Payton had against Michigan State and the 17.5 points, 8.5 assists and 7.0 boards he had in two games against Richard Pitino’s FIU team. He told Donovan to ask around about this kid.

Donovan, Marlin said, told him that wasn’t necessary. He trusted his old friend’s opinion, and that a spot had opened up because Tyus Jones dropped out of the trials. Marlin would have to save the hard-sell for Sean Ford of USA Basketball, however. It was his decision to make.

When Marlin finally heard from Ford, the Men’s National Team Director, Ford only had two questions:

“Is Elfrid 19 years old?”

Yes. He turned 19 in February.

“Does he have a passport?”

Well, he does now.

From there, the story tells itself.

Payton was sensational during the training camp, beating out the likes of Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Dunn, Damyeon Dotson, Javan Felix and Rodney Purvis for a spot on the 12 man roster. He then beat out Nigel Williams-Goss, James Robinson, Michael Frazier and Justise Winslow for a spot in Team USA’s starting lineup, where he was featured alongside future lottery picks Marcus Smart and Rasheed Sulaimon.

“I thought if given the opportunity to show it, I can play with those guys,” Payton said. “Once I got the chance I was able to seize the opportunity.”

Payton earning a spot on the team turned him into a major story in the college hoops world in the slow month of June; Ragin’ Cajun point guards don’t often don the red, white and blue. But it was his on the court that really got people talking. Payton is as athletic slasher that is a nightmare to keep out of the paint and a misery to try to handle the ball against. He’s still learning some of the intricacies of being a point guard — how to run a team, how to read the pick-and-roll, when to pick his spots — but the talent and the effort level is there.

While Payton was putting up nine points, six assists and five steals in the U-19 final against Serbia, Marlin was fielding calls from NBA front office types asking how the heck this kid ended up at UL. Given the success of mid-major combo-guards in recent years — Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum — it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the NBA has started inquiring.

All Payton needed was the exposure.

And if he had gotten that invite from the Chris Paul camp in the spring, he wouldn’t have been on that trip to China. If he didn’t take that trip to China, he wouldn’t have had a passport when USA Basketball extended him an invite.

“Opportunities don’t come around a lot,” Payton said. “So when they do, it’s important that you make the most of them.”

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Marlin got the news while Payton was in Prague representing his country.

“We get the call, finally, and they ask him to come to Chris Paul camp,” Marlin said. “I told the guy, we waited and we waited and we didn’t hear anything back. I said, ‘we tried’, and he said, ‘well, he’s in now.'”

It wasn’t quite that simple, though. The Chris Paul camp happened to coincide with UL’s trip to Spain this August. Payton would have a decision to make: go on an exhibition tour with his team, or spend three days in Winston-Salem at the camp he had worked so hard to get into five months ago.

He declined the invitation.

“Chris Paul isn’t going anywhere,” Payton said. “I felt like I needed to spend some time with my teammates and get better with my team. The most important goal is to win a conference championship and to make a run in March, and I just wanted to be with my team at that time.”

“Little things and reasons that went into the decision that I didn’t get in [initially] did kind of put a chip on my shoulder, but everything happens for a reason. It was alright. I was able to experience the U-19. The whole thing about the Chris Paul camp was getting exposure, and the U-19s did that for me.”

Quinnipiac set to hire Villanova assistant Baker Dunleavy as new head coach

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Quinnipiac will introduce Villanova assistant coach Baker Dunleavy as the team’s new head coach on Tuesday, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Dunleavy has helped the Wildcats to a national championship and multiple Big East championships as the team’s associate head coach. A former walk-on for Villanova who transitioned into a director of operations and later an assistant coach, Dunleavy is the son of Tulane head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. Baker’s brother, Mike Dunleavy Jr., is still playing in the NBA as well.

The 34-year-old Dunleavy has experience with a championship program at Villanova so it will be interesting to see what he can do running his own program for the first time. Quinnipiac hired Dunleavy to replace Tom Moore, who was fired after 10 years with the program.

The Bobcats went to an NIT and made a few other postseason appearances under Moore but the program has never been to the NCAA tournament since making the transition to Division I in the late ’90s.

Report: Duquesne hires Akron’s Keith Dambrot as new head coach

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Duquesne has hired Akron head coach Keith Dambrot to the same position, according to a report from ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman.

The 58-year-old Dambrot has been head coach at Akron since 2004 as he’s helped the program to three NCAA tournament appearances.

The former high school coach of LeBron James at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Dambrot won two Ohio state championships with James before becoming an assistant coach at Akron in 2001. Dambrot eventually took over the head job over from Dan Hipsher.

Dambrot is reportedly getting a seven-year deal from Duquesne so the Dukes are making a major investment in him to turn around the basketball program.

Duke’s Christian Laettner shouts out North Carolina’s Luke Maye on Twitter after winning jumper over Kentucky

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Duke and North Carolina don’t have much in common.

But the historic college basketball rivals now have the distinction of earning late Elite Eight wins over Kentucky that involved a No. 32 making the winning shot.

Blue Devil legend Christian Laettner is famous for his 1992 buzzer-beater over Kentucky in the Elite Eight and he made sure to give some love to North Carolina sophomore Luke Maye after his own Elite Eight shot knocked out the Wildcats.

Rice’s Marcus Evans becomes one of top available transfers

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Rice sophomore guard Marcus Evans will transfer and play his final two seasons elsewhere, he announced on Monday.

The 6-foot-2 Evans has been a major scorer the last two seasons for the Owls as he averaged 19.0 points per game this season after putting up 21.4 points per game as a freshman.

With Rice head coach Mike Rhoades taking the VCU opening and the program struggling to consistently win, Evans seeking to play elsewhere should not come as much of a surprise.

Evans will have to sit out a transfer season before having two more years of eligibility but he should be one of the best options available this offseason. A proven scorer who has become more well-rounded this season, Evans could be a high-quality addition to any program this offseason.

A native of Chesapeake, Virginia, it will be interesting to see if Evans decides to play closer to home.

NBA Draft Stock Watch: Who has helped themselves in the NCAA Tournament?

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The term ‘prisoner of the moment’ is never more fitting than when weighing just how valuable an NCAA Tournament star turn is for a kid’s potential success as an NBA player.

We see it every year. Big tournament performances during deep runs in the dance is a great way to inflate draft stock while disappointing exits are an easy way to hurt it, even if it goes against the season-long data that is telling us something about a player. 

Who are the players that helped themselves the most this March? And who may have put a damper on their chances of hearing their name called early on draft night?

STOCK UP

Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Thornwell has played his way into the discussion as a potential first round pick by leading South Carolina to the Final Four. He has the physical tools to be an excellent defender in the NBA, and he certainly has the toughness and physicality, but it’s his shot-making that is the game-changer for him. He shot 39.4 percent from three on the season and is hitting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc in the tournament, and while the knuckle-ball action on his jumper is concerning, at some point it’s fair to wonder whether or not his less-than-ideal form is less important than the fact that it goes in. Thornwell, who was the SEC Player of the Year this season, will be an interesting 3-and-D candidate come draft night, and the spotlight on him from averaging 25.7 points while leading the Gamecocks to the Final Four will only help.

De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox solidified his standing as a potential top five during the tournament. The red flags are still there — Can he make threes in the NBA? — but at the end of the day, the NBA Draft is about whether or not you want one guy or the other guy. This is a draft that is absolutely loaded at the point guard spot, and for the second time this season, Fox outplayed a guy that many have slotted above him, Lonzo Ball. In the Sweet 16, he put up 39 points, the most impressive individual performance of the tournament, as Kentucky skated by UCLA more easily than most of us expected. Ball should probably still be considered the better, but when you’re sitting in that room making those decisions, it’s not going to be easy to bypass the guy that bested him twice.

Jordan Bell, Oregon: Bell, a senior, has been one of the best defensive players in the country all season long, and never was that more apparent than when he went for 11 points, 13 boards, eight blocks and four assists against Kansas in the Elite 8. He totally changed that game, making Landen Lucas look like an eighth grader without any confidence and forcing the Jayhawks to miss a number of shots in the lane simply because they were aware that Bell could be lurking. He was probably worth a second round pick already, but that game very likely ensured that he will here his name called at some point on draft night.

Tyler Dorsey, Oregon: Dorsey is a shot-maker. That’s what he brings to the table offensively. He can score. He’s gone for at least 20 points in all seven tournament games — Pac-12 and NCAA — that Oregon had played this year, and he hit innumerable big shots in the process, including a game-winner against Rhode Island in the second round and a pair of absolute daggers against Kansas. Undersized scorers come a dime-a-dozen at that level, but Dorsey ensured that he will get a shot this spring.

D.J. Wilson, Michigan: Wilson has been one of the most intriguing prospects in college basketball this season given his size, athleticism and skill-set, and the attention that Michigan got as the darling of the conference tournaments and the first weekend of the NCAA tournament certainly didn’t hurt. I’m not convinced he’s in a position to be a first round pick, but I am certain that, if he opts to declare for the draft and sign with an agent, there will be a team willing to bet on the meteoric rise he had this year continuing.

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STOCK DOWN

Lonzo Ball, UCLA: With all the hype surrounding the Ball family heading into his showdown with De’Aaron Fox and Kentucky in the Sweet 16, you would’ve expected Lonzo, who has been terrific this season, to shine on the biggest stage. But that’s not how it went. He was completely overshadowed by Fox, who went for a career-high 39 points when they went head-to-head, bowing out of the tournament with nothing but a Sweet 16 to show for it. There’s a risk in making over-arching judgements on a player based off of one or two games when a season’s worth of data is telling you something else, but it is fair to note that Ball was outplayed in both of his matchups with another potential top five pick at his position.

Josh Jackson, Kansas: We’ve seen all season long what Josh Jackson can do on a basketball court, and one bad game where he got into foul trouble in the first four minutes is not going to change the way that scouts view his ability on the court. The concern with Jackson has nothing to do with basketball. It’s the off-the-court stuff, and it’s his temper. The biggest red flag surrounding him right now is an incident at a bar where he did more than $1,000 worth of damage to a person’s car. He got a few technical fouls this season. Against Oregon, he got into it with Duck players. Whether that affected his play, only Jackson will know, but it’s not all that hard to connect those dots. It’s easier to teach a 19-year old that cares too much to tone it down — the maturity that comes with getting older certainly helps — than it is to get a guy with no heart to be intense and tough, but that’s something NBA teams are going to have to consider when they decide whether to take Jackson in the top three of a draft this loaded.

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Justin Patton, Creighton: Patton is incredibly talented and loaded with promise, but after seeing the dip in his production once Mo Watson went out with a torn ACL — 14.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on a 74 percent shooting vs. 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds on 61 percent shooting post Watson — is concerning. Throw in that he was totally underwhelming against an undersized front line of Rhode Island in a first round loss, and there will be questions asked about whether or not he is a guy that is worth a first round pick.

Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard, by all accounts, had a terrific season. He’s a skilled scorer that can get his buckets in a number of different ways. He’s a lights-out shooter with an advanced array of moves to create space to get his shot off and a knack for scoring around the rim with both hands. But the concerns with him is whether or not he will be able to do so against guys that are as athletic and strong as NBA wings are. Picking a second round matchup with a South Carolina team loaded with those kind of defenders to have his worst game of the season wasn’t exactly ideal timing.

Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart does everything well, and he certainly proved throughout the season that he had improved on the things that he needed to improve — shooting, playmaking, ability off the dribble. But the concern with Hart is whether or not he’s going to be able to get his own shot when the guys he plays against are bigger, quicker, more athletic and just as tough as he is, and the way Villanova bowed out of the tournament — with Hart being unable to create a shot or draw a foul on a drive to the rim — is a perfect summation of the concerns NBA teams have about him.